With a career arranging, composing and playing that began back in the 1950s, pianist Dick Hyman is by now an institution. Whatever it is that gains entry into the musical pantheon, Hyman has done it. So when Hyman joins forces with veteran clarinet and saxophone star Ken Peplowski for a weekend gig at the Kitano Hotel in New York, it is something of an occasion for jazz fans. And when a new live album documenting that 2012 weekend comes along, it is nothing short of a welcome gift. Dick Hyman & Ken Poplowski’s …Live at the Kitano is the album, and it is indeed a gift.
Peplowski and Hyman have played together a number of times over the past quarter century, but usually backed at least by a rhythm section. Here they perform as an unaccompanied duo. For two musicians to take the stage for an evening of bare bones improvisation, they have to know each other well enough to be confident about the likely result. They may be virtuoso performers individually, but they must be comfortable with each other. They must be compatible.
No need to worry about Hyman and Peplowski. They play together like they can read each other’s minds. Whether they’re turning W.C. Handy’s “Yellow Dog Blues” into a boogie woogie blues or merging the classic “Lover Come Back to Me” with Horace Silver’s “Quicksilver” and improvising allusive phrases from other songs, they are always on the same page, the right page.
The album begins with a swinging fantasia on Rodgers and Hart’s “The Blue Room” that builds exponentially after the laid-back opening. It is a vibrant interpretation of the theme. Their take on the Kurt Weill/Ira Gershwin show tune, “My Ship” stresses its atmospheric yearning, and the Thelonious Monk jazz standard “Ugly Beauty” comes off as something of an off kilter waltz. Monk’s “I Mean You!” is one of the more bebop oriented pieces on the set. “Gone with the Wind,” “Lucky to Be Me,” and “The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise” fill out the album.
This is great music played with creative originality by two artists who know what they’re doing. It is music that is fun to listen to the first time, and will still be fun to listen to the 50th time.